Virginia lawmakers on Tuesday killed legislation that called for eliminating mandatory jail time for assaulting a police officer, a bill that drew heated opposition from Republicans who said it would send the wrong message at a time when law enforcement has come under attack during nationwide protests over police brutality and racial injustice.
The bill proposed by Democratic Sen. Scott Surovell passed the Senate last month, but was rejected Tuesday after several Democrats on the House Courts of Justice Committee raised concerns about how certain terms were defined in the bill and whether juveniles should be exempted from the charge.
The bill would have kept the charge as a felony, but would have given a judge or jury discretion to reduce it to a misdemeanor if there was no bodily injury to the officer or if someone’s culpability was minimal because of diminished physical or mental capacity or a developmental disorder.
The legislation also would have required an investigation by a different police officer and approval by a prosecutor if charged as a felony.
Surovell and other critics of the current law say police use the charge too often, particularly in cases involving excessive force.
Surovell said his bill was not aimed at addressing serious physical assaults on police, which can be prosecuted under the state’s malicious wounding law, a crime that carries a two-year mandatory minimum sentence. Instead, the bill was designed to make a distinction between serious assaults and minor assaults, he said.
The legislation is one of dozens of bills taken up during a special legislative session focused on police and criminal justice reforms sparked by the killing of George Floyd while in police custody in Minnesota and a national protest movement.
Republican Del. Ronnie Campbell said the legislation sends the wrong message to the public.
“I'm concerned that this bill will basically declare open season on police officers,” Campbell said.
Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, said he was concerned that the legislation didn't include special provisions for juveniles after a children's advocate suggested they should be excluded from being charged under the statute.
The committee approved Bourne's suggestion that the bill be referred to the Virginia State Crime Commission for study, effectively ending its chances for passage during the special session.
Surovell said he is likely to reintroduce the bill next year. He cited cases when the assault charge was brought even though the officers involved did not receive any bodily injury, including the case of a woman with mental health issues who was arrested after she threw a styrofoam food container and a piece of an onion ring hit an officer in the arm.
“The idea you could go to jail for six months for a loose onion ring, a little water on your shoes, or an autistic person having a tick is just an incredibly mindboggling outcome — not fair or just," he said.
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